Song of Salvation

R&B legend Sam Moore finds serenity in Scottsdale

Sam and Dave were at their critical and commercial zenith, selling millions of records and winning a Grammy. They remained a peerless live act. As Peter Guralnick -- award-winning author of the Elvis Presley bios Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love -- notes, "I don't think anyone who saw them at the peak soon forgot the impact of their performance." Among those who would not forget was Otis Redding. As Guralnick recounts in his seminal study, Sweet Soul Music, Redding -- a man generally regarded as the most electrifying showman of his era -- was so overwhelmed having to follow Sam and Dave during a Stax package tour that he asked to be excused from ever sharing a bill with them again.

The formula that the label had established with Sam and Dave continued to work throughout 1967 and 1968, yielding further chart success. The duo capitalized by touring incessantly, buying their own bus and jet. Moore and Prater hit the road for an average of 300 dates a year; the remainder of the days were spent in the studio or doing promotion.

But just as it appeared things could get no better, three events occurred that would damage Sam and Dave irreparably. In late 1968, Atlantic's distribution deal with Stax ended, which meant that Sam and Dave could longer record there or count on the Porter/Hayes team to provide them with material. Eventually, the pair went back to the parent company, recording with Atlantic head Jerry Wexler in New York, then with Dave Crawford in Muscle Shoals. Just as quickly as the hits had come, they dried up; the group could not replicate its previous magic.

Moore, looking wan and wasted during the height of his heroin addiction.
Moore, looking wan and wasted during the height of his heroin addiction.
(Top) Moore rehearsing with Sting and Billy Joel at a recent benefit concert. (Bottom) Sam shakes his bon-bon with Ricky Martin.
(Top) Moore rehearsing with Sting and Billy Joel at a recent benefit concert. (Bottom) Sam shakes his bon-bon with Ricky Martin.

By the early '70s, Sam and Dave were living in separate cities; Moore in New York and Prater in Miami. While their commercial collapse was straining the partnership, a far greater breach developed when Prater shot his second wife, Judy Gilbert, in the face during an argument. Prater escaped prosecution when Gilbert refused to testify against him. But for Moore, it was the final straw in the relationship. In a now-famous quote, he told Prater, "Dave, I'll sing with you, but I shall not ever, ever speak to you again."

Though the act lasted another decade, those would be the last words to pass between the two -- except, as Moore concedes, "when we were both crazy on drugs."

Moore's recreational use of cocaine in the late '60s turned into full-blown heroin abuse by the early '70s. Prater followed suit.

On the career track, things weren't much better. The pair broke up briefly in 1970. Moore signed as a solo artist with Atlantic, putting out a trio of singles in '70 and '71, and recording an album that was never released. Prater also embarked on a short-lived solo bid in 1972.

They needed each other. The names Sam and Dave, though rapidly fading, were still the only real cachet they possessed. The duo reunited in 1974, recording Back At 'Cha, an ill-fated "comeback" album for the United Artists label, and releasing a set of singles which, again, went nowhere.

By now, touring had become a grim ritual. "It was all about getting enough money to buy the next fix," sighs Moore.

Their performances grew erratic. Their following diminished. "You couldn't fool the audience. They could see that these guys are junkies, losers."

Where they had once shone on the stages of the Copacabana and the Apollo Theater, the rest of the decade saw their descent hasten.

"Now, we're playing after-hours clubs for drug dealers -- 12 o'clock to 4 o'clock in the morning," recounts Moore. "No more playing in clubs where you have Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart in the audience. This is for the drug people. They didn't pay us in money. They paid us in drugs. It was really ugly by that time."

Once a robust ebony figure in a tilted porkpie hat, Moore was now emaciated by chemical abuse. "At first I was skin-popping the heroin, 'cause I didn't want no marks. I did that for two or three years, then I went to mainlining; hired a gopher to shoot me up. It just got worse, until I learned to be the doctor and shoot myself up.

"For a long time I was really embarrassed. I hid behind a beard. I would never step out in the spotlight. The bottom line was that I knew what I had done to myself. You can't help but know when you look in the mirror in the morning and see you're 118 pounds, when you had once been 180. You're wearing someone else's clothes, 'cause your own don't fit you anymore. You're a slave to what I call your woman, your needle."

Moreover, Sam and Dave had come under the sway of a manager named Jeff Brown. Brown had guided Ray Charles' career and, it would later turn out, swindled Charles out of a healthy sum of money.

Brown did little for the band aside from setting up a number of vacuous quick-hit jobs -- a rerecording of their greatest hits in '78, a session that Prater did not show up for. Mostly, he had the duo on the road playing destructive one-night stands -- in effect, keeping them addicted. Brown had his reasons. He'd become the "and" in Sam and Dave, taking a third of the group's profits for himself and whatever other money he could outright steal, including the bulk of the $50,000 advance for the UA album. (In a bizarre move, Brown even posed in the group's publicity photo, standing between a robed Sam and Dave.)

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